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Death Be Not Proud

Over the last two weeks, the anniversary of the 7th of July – and its aftermath in Beeston – brought to my mind John Donne's poem,
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
The poem is a declaration of faith and hope in the face of all that might otherwise cause us to despair. I remember the words being read out at the end of the TV adaptation of Olivia Manning's novel 'Friends and Heroes', part of her trilogy of books about life in the Balkans during World War II. The scene is an old tramp steamer full of refugees fleeing from Greece as the German army invades. The engines have been cut and the ship bobs silently on the waves, hoping to evade detection by the encircling U-boats. Even the passengers hold their breath, fearing that – at any moment – a torpedo might be skimming across the waves to blow them all to pieces. And then, in the stillness, as the sunset casts an orange glow over the sea, the hero of the novel, Guy Pringle, begins to read aloud from John Donne's poem:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
I guess Fay Weldon, who wrote the adaptation, thought it was a suitably dramatic thing for Guy to do, given that he was supposed to be an English tutor, just like Olivia Manning's real husband. But, again like her real husband, he is also an atheist, and probably the last person in the world who would take comfort himself, or invite others to take comfort in, John Donne's poem. Nevertheless, it made a very affecting ending to the programme, and the scene has stuck in my mind ever since.
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
mighty and dreadful, for thou are not so.
Death is not mighty, says Donne, because it cannot choose when to strike. It is the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'. It was chance that decreed which people would be passengers in those train carriages, and on that bus In Tavistock Square, on the 7th of July last year; and it was chance which decided which of them would be killed and which would live. It was desperate men who carried out those acts of savagery, and it was the State which then over-reacted and – in its own desperation to prevent further acts of terror – gave the fateful orders to tail and shoot Jean Charles de Menezes. John Donne wrote his poem four hundred years ago, but nothing much has changed. Death is still the 'slave to fate, chance, kings and desperate men'.
An atheist like Guy Pringle might not take comfort in John Donne's poem, but – if they ever read the poem – the terrorists might have found echoes of their own reasoning. 'Those, whom thou think'st. thou dost overthrow, die not, poor death,' says Donne, 'Nor yet canst thou kill me.' That thought was surely what must have motivated the terrorists as they triggered their bombs. They must have told themselves that, though they were about to die, yet they were also about to live more full than ever before. Death would not destroy them. They would be translated to Paradise.
Just as 'much pleasure' flows from rest and sleep – which are only pale imitations of death – so much more pleasure must surely flow from death itself, reasons Donne, as he looks forward to everlasting life in God. This kind of reasoning is, of course, one of the things which makes religious fanaticism so dangerous. The most ardent believers are never afraid of dying because they believe that, no matter how good their prospects might be here and now, they will certainly improve after their death. And isn't that what all religious believers are supposed to think, except that – unlike the terrorists – we don't believe it's our job to give God a helping hand and bring death on!
John Donne was himself a Church of England clergyman and never a fanatic of any kind, but – be that as it may – he strikes yet more cords with the way that modern terrorists think. He says, 'Soonest, our best men with thee do go.' He means that it is usually the best and most committed believers who tend to take the greatest risks, and do the bravest deeds, and who have the least care for their own health and safety. He's not, of course, advocating that believers should be reckless, or that they should seek out death. He's merely giving poetic expression to a fact of life – that, on average, where people are more concerned about the well-being of others than they are about themselves, they will tend to die sooner than those whose only concern is for their own self-preservation. That's not just common sense, of course, it's also a central plank of the Christian's understanding of how we should all live and die. Still, it's more than a little disconcerting to think that Muhammad Saddique Khan probably encouraged his own recruits with the same basic idea that only the good die young.
These reminders of the ways in which religion can be twisted by the terrorist mindset are bound to disappoint and dismay us, but fortunately, like John Donne, I have been able to save the best part of the poem until last. 'Death shall be no more,' says Donne. 'Death thou shalt die.'
In saying this Donne doesn't mean to cheapen death or to deny its impact. I'm never happy, when people ask me at funerals to read poems which tell us that death is not real – that the person who has died is not actually gone – because that it untrue. We do have to confront the pain and loss which death inflict because, if we are not honest with ourselves, we shall never learn to cope with them. Pretending that death does not really matter is never a solution to grief.
This, however, is not what John Donne is trying to tell us. He's not denying the reality of suffering and death, only challenging their permanence. Death is for real, but it is not forever. It will be overcome. Death, too, shall die.
Donne is referring, of course, to the resurrection – to the central Christian conviction that, from God's perspective, no one dies forever because we always live on in the mind of God himself and so, at the deepest and most profound level of our existence, we shall all meet one another again in God, even after we have died. And, eventually, there will be no more dying, or grieving or pain. For all these former things shall pass away and only life and love will endure.
Yet there is another sense in which John Donne's words are also true. 'Death, thou shalt die' is a reminder that nothing which death achieves can ever be permanent. There will always be some kind of new life springing up in spite of death, to replace the life which has been lost and to challenge and negate death's achievements. This is what King Herod discovered, to his chagrin, when Jesus appeared in Galilee, preaching a message of Good News from God which was not unlike the message of John the Baptist, whom Herod had only just silenced. He had thought that John's troublesome teaching was gone for good, but here was the same kind of thing being proclaimed all over again. [1]
How many times will people like King Herod need to kill the prophets of God in order to silence their message? The answer, of course, is that the message can never be silenced. The Herods of this world would have to go on killing good men and women until the end of time if they really wanted to keep God's messengers silent.
I think this is the abiding lesson for people in Beeston as we look back on the 7th of July. 2005. The terrorists hoped that their bombs, and the threat of more like them, would call into question the Government's policy of attacking members of the Muslim community in Iraq and Afghanistan, but even that limited aim has not succeeded. If anything, like Pharaoh when he was challenged by the ten plagues in Egypt, Tony Blair has only hardened his heart and become more determined than ever not to give way.
On a broader canvass, I suspect the terrorists also imagined that death and destruction could make a difference where positive or non-violent means of protest don't succeed. They failed to appreciate that the ideas of peaceful protest, co-existence and non-violence, which they thought they could overthrow, cannot be so easily killed off.
DEATH be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for, thou art not so,
For, those, whom thou think'st, thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,
And, soonest, our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and souls' delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then;
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.
[1] Mark 6.14-29


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